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COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerability of Australia’s early learning childcare system and the need for reform, says Thrive by Five CEO and former South Australia Premier Jay Weatherill.
“COVID has, in a sense, put the early years on the national political agenda because it has revealed the fragility of the early years’ services system,” he told a CEDA audience in Perth.
The call comes as more than one in five Australian children enter primary school developmentally vulnerable, according to the 2018 Australian Early Development Census.
Mr Weatherill said early childhood services were under pressure and needed significant reform.
“In the childcare sector, you’ve seen [services] fall over or at threat of falling over,” he said.
“There’s real challenges to the viability of the sector and it’s largely because of the way it’s funded, and it’s not really seen as a system in the same way as the education system.”
Mr Weatherill said Australia needed a coherent early childhood system that followed children from birth through to five years of age.
“It’s going to be a complex system because the needs of infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers are different,” he said.
“But at the moment, it’s a mess in those early years. There are big gaps, quality issues and a whole range of things that mean that families and children don’t get what they need.”
Making early childhood a greater priority for the federal government
Mr Weatherill said Thrive by Five, an initiative of the Minderoo Foundation, was campaigning to make Australia’s early childhood system a greater priority for the federal government.
“Things like education and social issues are a long way down the list and they tend to be regarded as state issues, so somehow we have to turn this into a national economic issue,” he said.
“If you want it on the national agenda, you have to be talking about economics.”
Thrive by Five says the current system is a disincentive to mothers who want to work full time.
KPMG research shows workforce disincentive rates of between 75 per cent and 120 percent are common for mothers looking to work more than three days per week, with some mothers even losing money by working a fifth day.
Mr Weatherill said it was the right time for the federal government to reform the early learning childcare system as the country faces the economic recovery.
“I think it’s given us permission to be bold in a policy sense,” he said.